In USA Today, Sean Gilmartin gives usLove in the Stacks: Making strides with diversity in romance novels. Gilmartin discussessearching for representations “that are more realistic representations of the real world;” representation readers can identify with, including representations of gay people, a wider range of cultural representations and more representations of people of colour in YA and romance. Gilmartin interviews Adrianne Byrd, JD Mason, Cheris Hodges, Beverly Jenkins, and Donna Hill, all romance authors who write more realistic representations of the real world. These authors give us people of colour in romance fiction.
The article is, as Marisa Tomei says in My Cousin Vinny, “Dead on balls accurate.” I particularly like this line, “We as authors and publishers are not being honest with our readers when we fail to include diversity in our fiction.” I often wonder why it’s so difficult to have diversity in the media when life offers such a range of amazing and difference, of variety, which, you know, is the spice of life.
Gilmartin, who writes paranormal romance as Sean Thomas, believes as I do, that there is not just ONE archetype of romance reader or a handful of romance fiction protagonists. In real life, readers are a diverse bunch who are waiting and wiling to read books, particularly romance novels, that offer a more realistic representation of their lives. Diversity in fiction, television, and film means an accurate portrayal of ethnicity and culture, a greater representation of people of all colour,a greater representation of gay people, and, as I have in my romance novels Driving in Neutral, For Your Eyes Only, and A Basic Renovation, a greater representation of mature-aged people — that’s anyone over 40. Diversity means that the lead character, the protagonist, heroine and hero, whatever you want to call them, is the star of the show, not a supporting player or stereotype.
So how about spicing things up? How about we be honest in the media and give accurate and diverse representation of what it’s like to be human.
An author of contemporary fiction. I love to write about mature women and examine how they face and overcome the family and the career issues they meet. I’ve chosen to write in this genre because this is what I love to read. I believe that older women and the events which impact their lives are often ignored.
I’ve been waiting to do this post. I mean REALLY waiting. I wasn’t sure how long it would be before someone made mention of a lead character’s less-than-stellar behavior in Driving in Neutralonce it was published.
I’ve been waiting because this book has a history, and not just a 75 days long blog series on fear history. Yes, kids, I spent 75 days focused on phobias. As a lead-in to the release of Driving in Neutral, the romcom I call my ‘love story about claustrophobia,’ guests dropped by to talk about their fears. For 75 days.
Bear with me. I’ll get to the history bit soon.
The 75 Days Series should have highlighted that I like writing about fear. I like using fear as the key to hindering or unraveling a relationship, but I also like that a character eventually triumphs over fear, after all, I write romance where love triumphs over all. Love is a scary thing. Love can make a person feel vulnerable. Love can make a person act impulsively, and do dumb things. Love is primitive, emotional. People may be unable to filter their actions because love has jacked up their hormonal system. Everything is overloaded. So, let’s backtrack to the bit about vulnerability because like love, fear has a similar effect on a person. Fear is primitive, emotional. A person may be unable to filter their actions because fear has jacked up their hormonal system. In both cases, the amygdala, the centre of emotional behaviour, is doing all the work, while the pre-fontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates behavior, that is, the part of the brain that tells you what is right and what is wrong, is sort of on hold.
Fear can make people act in ways that seem out of character, can make a good person do something bad. When it comes to a character pushing the boundaries of behavior, what crosses the line between an acceptable response and a reprehensible response to fear? Is retribution ever justifiable, or understandable within a character’s behaviour? Or is revenge always just plain wrong? This is what I wanted to explore.
Lead characters in romance fiction are often held to a higher standard of behavior; they are perceived by many readers to be a ‘better’ form of a human being, one who frequently rises above petty or malicious behavior. As a result of this, when a romance hero or heroine acts in a primitive way, when impulsivity gets the better of them and these good people do bad things, some readers will protest and deem that character to be unlikable, un-heroic, and unworthy of being a romantic lead. Other readers don’t care.
I wasn’t sure which lead character would push the boundary for some readers, since both the hero and heroine in Driving in Neutral behave quite badly. Getting trapped in an elevator brings out the worst in claustrophobic Maxwell. He raves and verbally abuses Olivia, the woman trapped with him. His reaction is completely childish and base. He is overwhelmed by his fear, is unable to filter, and works from a primitive space. He’s all amygdala function.
When Olivia’s fear surfaces she, too, is in amygdala overdrive. So jacked up is her response to her fear she misbehaves. Terribly. There are 4 reasons for misbehaving: attention, power, inadequacy, revenge.
Olivia feels aggrieved, exposed, and acts impulsively, which, at that moment when it all spins out of control, is her best way of coping with being vulnerable. Her reaction is completely childish, and base. What she does to Emerson is cruel, and, just as he feels remorse for abusing her, she feels remorse for her behaviour…eventually, once her hormonal system is back at a normal operating level.
Now the history bit. A while back, I entered Driving in Neutral in a writing contest. A judge took issue with Emerson Maxwell’s verbal abuse of Olivia, particularly with name-calling. I was scolded with, “A hero would never call a heroine names.” In case you’re wondering, those names were ‘wet rodent’ and ‘waterlogged hamster.’ Not exactly ear-scorching or profane, but I knew, based on that reaction, that Maxwell and my writing had crossed the line for that reader-judge.
What I want to know is this: Does the context for a character’s bad behaviour matter to you, or is bad behaviour always a no-go zone for romance leads, because romance heroes and heroines must maintain that ‘better’ form?
Fear can make a person act in ways that seem out of character, can make a good person do something bad. When it comes to a romance hero or heroine pushing the boundaries of behavior, what, to you, crosses the line between an acceptable response and a reprehensible behaviour? Is retribution ever justifiable, or understandable within the circumstances of a character’s behaviour? Or is name-calling and revenge always just plain wrong?
So what do I think, where do I stand on all this behaving badly stuff? My friend Swell, a longtime romance reader, sums up how I feel about lead characters behaving badly in a romance novel. Swell says that if the “reaction is realistic and a part of the character, and the reaction is used to complete the relationship between the hero and heroine, then I will feel that the response was appropriate for the character.” Amen sister.
Welcome back. We hope you enjoyed the brief, DeLorean-free trip to the past and apologise for today’s bumpy landing. To refresh your memory, we were discussing
Sleeping with someone other than the hero;Being a bitch; using foul language; and (my favourite)Having the cojones to be over 40.
Yep. You heard that right. It’s a taboo to be 45 and in love… in Contemporary romance.
I’m being specific about contemporary romance fiction for a reason. I’ve always loved interplay of real life with the fantasy part of falling in love. That’s why contemporary rom is what I most enjoy reading, it’s what I write, and what I’ve noticed is oddly age limited. It’s pretty freaky when you know the average age of a romance reader is 44.9 (see RWAwww.rwa.org/cs/readership_stats) because despite that, a form of segregation creeps into Contemporary. After 40 a woman’s characterisation changes. She becomes what I’d like to suggest can be viewed as an additional incarnation of the ‘other‘ woman, where her age equates to a source of comedy, an unworthiness, or form of evil. ‘Other’ women have a place in romance fiction. I like a well-crafted female villain, but this isn’t about the purpose served by that sort of characterisation, or even about the way ‘other’ women are typically punished, although I can argue that the segregation I mentioned is a form of punishment.
Some of you have read my schtick before. You regular Biteyites know I research the phenomenon that moves a woman 40-plus out of contemporary romance fiction and ushers her, or for the sake of this entry, segregates her, into those genres that fall under the term of Women’s Fiction—the Hen, Matron, and Granny Lit type stuff where the story is driven by the female protagonist’s emotional growth. In contemporary romance, when a forty-plus woman makes an appearance it is often as a secondary character, sometimes with a subplot of her own (hello Susan Elizabeth Phillips!), but most of the time Ms. Forty is cast as a stereotype rather than as heroine.
Lately, there’s something I’ve noticed. A heroine’s age is treated differently across a few romance subgenres. In historical romance, most authors strive to be accurate with the context of their story’s place and time. Historical authors are aware that life spans were more limited in the Eighteenth Century than in the Twenty-first, which means middle age in Regency times (and this is a big fat guess here) was somewhere around, let’s say, 28-32. For the sake of historical accuracy, a 19 to 20-something old-maid heroine is not out of place in a Regency romance. In Paranormal and urban fantasy romance age exists in a magical world that has no bearing on a heroine’s part in the story if she’s a vampire, shape-shifting, alien witch-goddess. Indeed a woman can be all that she can be in these subgenres, but in contemporary romance it’s uncommon to find a woman of a certain age allowed that same agency.
Oooh. I threw you for a loop there, with that bit about ‘agency’ didn’t I? ‘Scuse me, my dissertation’s showing. Think of all those forms of ‘other women’: the Stifler’s Mom cougar, evil stepmother, cranky old lady, mutton-dressed-as-lamb-whore, grandma, menopausal-wise-crackin’-best friend. None of these ladies are allowed to have centre stage. None of these women get to star in a book of their own.
OK, sometimes they do. The Age-Sinning Heroine is out there in Contemporarylandia. There are those who buck the trend. Julie, is in her sixties in Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo. Nora Roberts has Roz in The Black Rose. Jennifer Crusie’s got Nell in Fast Women. But come on, we’re talking Nora and Jenny! They can do almost anything because they’re, you know, Roberts & Cruise!
Roberts & Crusie—sounds like a cop Buddy movie, dunnit? Maybe it should it be Crusie and Roberts…
Anyhow, I’m here to make a point, so let’s get back to the idea of the ‘other’ and look at one more Crusie offering. J.C. brought us Shar in Dogs and Goddesses. Shar’s 48 and, like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Claire, she appears in a world where magic is possible, where being 48 doesn’t matter, where age isn’t made an issue to the love story. This “other-worldliness” of paranormal fiction connotes an older woman can exist as a heroine, but only if she possesses some sort of extraordinariness that propels her further beyond the usual fantasy of romance, beyond the ordinary realities typically found in contemporary fiction. The heroines in paranormal romance are allowed to be much more subversive than their contemporary counterparts. They aren’t sissy girls. They can behave like ‘other women.’ They can sin. They can act like men. They can cuss. They can be bitchy. They can kill people. They can sleep with another man besides the hero. Oddly enough, if you leave out the vampires, changelings, magic, and telekinesis, when you get down to the actual fantasy of romance, the paranormal romance heroine is the most realistic warts-n-all representation of a real woman. And they aren’t punished for it.
What this says, and I’m talkin’ bottom line here, is that if you’re looking at the other side of forty, and you wanna be a real woman, you wanna be bad, you wanna get to fall in love, be confused by the trip, have wild chimp sex, a happily ever after, or happy for now, forget contemporary romance. Pick up a paranormal to find your ‘normal.’
Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my contemporary romantic comedies with non-sissy 40+ women who man up and act like sinful paranormal heroines.
Previously on Oldbitey we’ve discussed the soundtrack, how songs influence and inspire this here romance writer (and many others). The two of you have read about my love for 70sHave a Nice Daybubblegumpop. You know all about my Andy Williams appreciation and my deep abiding love (and stalking) of Glenn Tilbrook. You had to listen to me blither on about my love of Squeeze and rock & roll fantasy come true (the evening I finally got to SING with Glenn Tilbrook, for those of you just discovering Oldbitey).
And now you get to learn about this.
Listening to music, making soundtracks to the novels I write, as well as conducting research for my PhD has led me to a revelation of sorts. J.R. Ward has her paranormal romance. Anna Campbell does Regency Noir. Suzanne Brockmann kicks romantic suspense ass.
I have Powerpop and New Wave.
Powerpop? New Wave? As in the musical Powepop and New Wave genre? As in Powerpop and New Wave romance? Yes indeedy-doo. That’s what I mean exactly. John Dougan described the genre’s origins: The musical sourcepoint for nearly all power-pop is The Beatles. Virtually all stylistic appropriations begin with them: distinctive harmony singing, strong melodic lines, unforgettable guitar riffs, lyrics about boys and girls in love; they created the model that other power-poppers copied for the next couple of decades. Other profound influences include The Who, The Kinks, and The Move (a precursor to ELO,) bands whose aggressive melodies and loud distorted guitars put the "power" in power-pop.
British bands labelled as power pop include The Jam,The Boys, Squeeze, The Buzzcocks, The ‘Think I’m Turnin’ Japanese’ Vapors, and The Chords.
Powerpop started before punk, at the very beginning of the 70s. It became associated with New Wave at the end of the decade because of the way the brief catchy songs fit into the mood of the Powerpop genre. Think Blondie, The Cars and The Romantics (wink-wink), The Records, and Cheap Trick (who opened for Squeeze!). They were all New Wave artists. Squeeze gets the distinction of being Powerpop AND New Wave.
Hey! Did you catch all that? ! It’s so applicable to OB. Squeeze is Powerpop New Wave, and is not Squeeze all about Oldbitey?
Let’s look at the above description I stole from wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_pop) and focus on a few things. harmony singing, strong melodic lines, unforgettable guitar riffs, lyrics about boys and girls in love.
Did y’all catch that? Boys and girls in LOVE.
I’m like Squeeze! I’m like The Who! I’m like the Cars! Powerpop New Wave romance. It’s romantic without the frilly Partridge family shirt and velvet vest. It’s bubblegum without the teenage acne. It’s clever romantic comedy without the cliches. And it’s the kind of romance I write.